The one you need and how to prevent the other two.

Over the years, I have come to understand that not all middle leaders are the same.  I am sure there are many ways to categorise middle leaders, but there are three that I have come to understand and see in many people in these positions. 

For the premises of this writing, I want to make it clear that I have had all versions of middle leaders on my teams, and pretty much each of them have been incredible people whom I have genuinely connected with on a personal level.  This paper does not differentiate between good people and bad people, nice people and horrible people.  Rather, it considers different middle-leader perspectives of their role. 

Three prominent dispositions of Middle Leaders:

  1. Vision Carriers
  2. Team Spokesperson
  3. Isolation Builders 
  1. Vision Carriers

Ultimately, a middle leader is a vision carrier first.  Their role is to take the organisation’s vision and see it enacted within their team and area of responsibility.

They will have a clear understanding of the vision of the organisation and have the freedom to translate the vision to be enacted within their team.  They will listen to their team members and troubleshoot situations to navigate issues unique to their team from the wider organisation. 

They are responsible for supporting team members who are not yet able to or do not yet understand how to implement the vision of the organisation.  As middle leaders, they should not be held responsible for members of their team who choose not to enact the vision of the organisation.  Having the ability to escalate vision hesitant or defiant staff to Human Resources or their superior affords the middle leader the position of being the support person of the team rather than the heavy-handed disciplinarian. 

  1. Team Spokesperson

Middle leaders who view themselves as the team spokesperson do so with a perspective that they are responsible firstly to their team rather than the organisation.  Those I know who see themselves as the team spokesperson believe their primary role is supporting and protecting their team.  This person usually has a heart of gold and only wants the best for their team, but they are oblivious to their important role in the realisation of the organisation's vision. 

Often, the team spokesperson will listen to concerns from their team and pursue the issue with the senior leadership, all the time knowing that the senior leadership will push back on issues raised that compromise the vision.  Returning from such a discussion, the middle leader will confirm to the team that senior leadership has not considered the issue. Then, the internal destruction of the organisation begins with a team believing that Senior Leadership is not interested or not listening to ‘us’. 

It is very important for leaders at all levels of an organisation to listen to their people and to be concerned with their wellbeing. However, middle leaders are not sudo union representatives.   

A significant danger of a team spokesperson, rather than a team leader, is that the organisation's vision takes a back seat to the team's desires.  There is nothing wrong with a team’s desires when they align with the organisation's vision, it is when the desires of the team compromise the organisation's vision that challenges arise.


To best protect an organisation from the unintentional creation of a team spokesperson, the organisation must ensure that middle leaders, at the least, feel that they are a part of the organisation's ‘why’.  That they understand the vision and can articulate the unique challenges of this vision within their area of responsibility.  There must be regular check-ins with middle leaders. 

Where a middle leader is identified as a spokesperson rather an a vision carrier, it is critical that conversations are had.  Conversations that unpack their team's concerns and questions posed that remind the middle leader of their priorities.  They must be reassured that while it is important to listen to the concerns of their team, their leadership role requires them to point back to the vision and ask the question, ‘How can we push towards the vision?’ recognising the challenges any member has raised.  Where the vision creates an impossible barrier for teams to pursue the vision, then, and only then, the issue is taken to a higher level.  At the stage of escalation, the middle leader is able to take the issue and clearly articulate how the vision impacts it.  

  1. Isolations Builders

Middle leaders who are isolation builders are the most dangerous of all middle leaders within an organisation that is intentionally pursuing a vision.  Again, they can be the nicest of people, but at the core, they perceive the vision as a suggestion for what they could do in their team rather than the fundamental purpose for their involvement in the organisation. 

I am not referring to middle leaders who have not been inducted well into the organisation.  Middle leaders who have not been introduced to what is important to the organisation are destined to fail. However, that is a failure of the organisation rather than the middle leader.

Isolation builders choose not to pursue the organisation’s vision.  It could be that they are not sold out to the vision, but it could be that they completely oppose it.  They are in the role because it is a means to a financial end rather than for any compelling purpose.  More often than not, isolation builders will say the ‘right thing’ when engaging in broader leadership discussions and mask what is happening within their team.  They know the answers and do not invite unwanted attention to their team. 

Teams with isolation-building middle leaders can be exposed in two ways: fragmentation within the team or fragmentation from the wider organisation.   

Fragmentation within the team: The team will slowly (or quickly, depending on personalities) fragment if two conditions exist.  Firstly, if people in the team understand the vision, and secondly, those people are faithful to the organisation.  In this scenario, there will be internal fragmentation of the team as some members support what the leader is doing, and others push towards the vision of the organisation. Those faithful to the organisation will not be satisfied with where the middle leader is taking them and desire to pursue what is important to the vision.  The vision that attracted them to the organisation in the first instance. 

Usually, when these two conditions exist, a committed member of the team will approach senior leaders about the direction the middle leader is taking with the team.  This can be the first indication that something not good is happening behind closed doors. 

Fragmentation from the organisation: If the whole team is united in the alternate direction that the isolation builder is taking with the team, they will usually stick together.  The indication that the team is moving in a different direction from the vision will be the formation of a click that becomes more and more isolated from the rest of the organisation.  Generally, they will not contribute well to wider discussions and will try not to bring attention to what they are doing.  There will be hostility towards outsiders coming into their team and a growing sense of them and us. 


Where a middle leader is identified as an isolation builder, it is important to distinguish between what is intentional as opposed to what is accidental.  There are many questions that can be asked:

  • Does the middle leader fully understand the vision? 
  • What aspects of the vision does the middle leader support? 
  • What aspects of the vision is the middle leader challenged by? 
  • Has the middle leader had a satisfactory orientation? 
  • Of what the middle leader understands of the vision, can they articulate a process to move the team from where they are currently to where they need to be? 
  • Where the middle leader fully understands the vision and is choosing to pursue something contrary to that vision, for the sake of the organisation's cohesion and success, actions must be taken to either refocus, retrain, reposition or if needed, remove the middle leader.

In Closing

Leadership is the art of taking people somewhere.  It is helping different personalities, different skill sets, and different backgrounds come together for a common purpose.  Effective middle leadership,  those who know the purpose of the organisation, are critical to the success of any organisation.  Middle leadership is critical to the cohesion of an organisation; they can either bring diverse people together for a common purpose, or they can be catalysts for division and dissatisfaction.

The onboarding of middle leadership and keeping them in the conversation is essential in keeping them all on the same page as the organisation.  As a senior leadership team, knowing the difference between accidental and intentional vision drift within your teams is vital, as each requires a different response. 

Finally, when middle leadership is personified by vision carriers who listen to their team and can troubleshoot with them to make the vision deeply embedded through all aspects of the organisation, there is cohesion and strength as everyone, from the CEO to the janitors, moves in the same direction towards a common purpose.